By Jack Kurzweil
From Portside.org 11/27/2004
This small commentary originally was part of the post election discussion in the Wellstone Democratic Renewal club in Oakland - Berkeley, California.
A great discussion has ensued about why George W. Bush won reelection, with some substantial number of his supporters voting against their own economic self interests. Many different explanations have been offered ranging from the ignorance of the electorate, the manipulation by the media, the inexplicable hold on the electorate by fundamentalist Christianity, the idea of "values", the stealing of the election through voting machine skullduggery, the fears generated by 9/11, and much more.
The flip side of this has been the problem of why Kerry lost. The reasons advanced are similarly multiple. And each of the reasons generates its own solution. Those who believe that Kerry lost on 'values' advocate moving more to the 'center'. Those who fault Kerry for the lack of an adequate program call for moving to the left. Politically active people who have email have seen scores of analyses and many proposals for action. Most of these are very insightful and useful.
But placed together, they invoke the fable of the blindfolded men and the elephant. You remember that one. The guy who feels the leg thinks of the elephant as a tree, the one who feels the ear imagines a bird, and the trunk reminds yet another of a snake. If we are to more accurately apprehend the elephant, we should at minimum combine the observations and, better yet, remove the blindfold and look at the whole thing.
So I want to try to look at the whole thing, or at least as much of the whole thing that I can see. And I'd like to try to do it so that pieces of the whole thing that I haven't seen can be added to the concept of the whole.
I think that that there is an underlying structural change that has framed the development of this crisis: the transformation of the world economy that began in the 60's. We all know about this process:
- the revolution in automation, computerization, communication, and transportation; - the accelerating application of science to industrial processes including in medicine, agriculture, and biotechnology; - the transformation of the American economy from manufacturing based to service based; - the export and outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and all sorts of other things like that.
The social consequences of this transformation are equally well-known. Let's list a few:
- trade unions in the private sector have been decimated and with that the weight of class based organization in key sectors of society have been undermined; - wage levels have decreased significantly, forcing married women into the workplace in a process that has been quite autonomous from the feminist upheaval, in turn leading to considerable stress in the traditional notions of family (please note that I am describing) - although much new wealth has been created, social mobility has decreased as the income and ownership gap has increased - consumerism and its culture, simultaneously repellant and attractive, has made its way into the fabric of American life and has a powerful impact on values and behavior
Now were this happening in isolation from other social and political upheavals, it would be difficult enough. But look at the other things that have been happening alongside:
1. The Civil Rights Movement and the fundamental changes in the social structure that resulted. 2. The spread of that movement to Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans 3. The powerful rise of the Women's Movement and the assertion of the place of women in society. 4. The assertion of the sexuality of gays and lesbians and their demand for civil rights. 5. The rise of a powerful middle-class based environmental movement.
All of these have been powerful emancipatory movements and we wouldn't have missed them for the world - but each one of them sent a shock to the system and together they interacted with the growing economic dislocations in ways that give new meaning to the term synergy.
Arising from and added to that mix is a new religious and spiritual Great Awakening in American life. From its beginnings, our nation has gone through a succession of fundamental social transformations, each of which has been accompanied by a Great Awakening. And we are in the middle of such a Great Awakening right now. The very First Great Awakening is dated from 1730-1760, with successive ones from 1800-1830 and 1890-1920. These awakenings didn't so much correspond to times of purely economic crisis (there was none in the Great Depression) but to periods of transformation of all of society.
Let us not be snide or clever about these awakenings. The First Great Awakening produced both religious ecstasy and the quality of independence from traditional authority that lad the basis for the War of Independence. The Awakening of 1800-1830 gave us abolitionism and women's rights as well as pro-slavery Southern Baptism, Mormonism and Manifest Destiny. And the current Awakening has given us Bhuddism, Rajneesh, Sojourners, Spirited Action, Michael Lerner, environmental sensibility, and organic food as well as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Branch Davidians, the rapture, scientific creationism, and the Promise Keepers. We are observing and participating in the spiritual complexity with which the United States responds to profound social transformation
Religious fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon in American life. It has been there from the beginning of our history, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but always there. And with Great Awakenings, fundamentalism comes into the foreground. The fundamentalist response to profound social transformations has been well analyzed by Karen Armstrong in "The Battle for God". She illustrates that it is a revolt against secular modernity when that modernity is connected to social upheaval and does not hold out the promise of a viable future.
I'm sure that I've left things out and I invite others to add to the complexity, but what we have here is the makings of a Perfect Storm.
Enter the combination of powerful sections of capital that opposed the legacy of both Roosevelt's and the most reactionary sections of the Christian Right, as noxious a collection of crypto - fascists that this fair land has ever seen. These guys are smart and ruthless and they spend decades building organization and program, always looking for ways of building unity in their very diverse forces. Understand that the corporate types who fund Bush likely don't give a rat's ass about abortion and homosexuality, but the tax cuts and the destruction of the regulatory process make acquiescing to that agenda very comfortable.
As powerful as these forces are, their power would not have reached it s current level were it not for the politics of race. The electoral map tells it all. The states of the old Confederacy contain half of the African American population of the country and, with the exception of Florida, were all considered firmly in the Bush camp and left uncontested by the Democrats. Put that together with the continuing Republican program of disenfranchising minority voters, who are the most reliable of Democrats, throughout the country with and you have a formidable combination.
So the organized Right has a far better collective understanding of the Perfect Storm than does the left or the mainstream Democrats. And it has a language and a program to deal with that storm. The language is 'family values' and the program is the 'free market'. It doesn't really matter that the anti-union Marriott Hotel chain is the biggest seller of pornography in the United States or that the free market impoverishes ordinary workers or that small government means expensive health care and education. There are problems and there are "solutions". What matters is that the "solutions" are clearly articulated, have internal coherence, and are in relation to a set of emerging cultural constructs. George Lakoff has been very useful in helping us to understand this process.
There has not yet been any kind of coherent response to this period of social transformation from the left.
Certainly there is a list of demands, reforms, and the like coming from the various sections of the labor and progressive movements, but that list does not make for a coherent response and certainly not a vision of the future.
(I think that the collapse of socialism both as a vision and as a system has something to do with this. Certainly the Cold War and the global victory of capitalism must be added to the mix, but I can't quite come up with how to do that. Others may be more productive in following this line of thought.)
The New Democrats have embraced globalization, privatization, and deregulation as inevitable and desirable processes. There should be no surprise in that; their primary loyalties are to finance capital. Robert Rubin as the DLC economic guru tells the tale on that one. And these are the guys that gave us NAFTA and WTO.
Recall that Clinton and Gore proudly announced that the "era of big government
is over" at exactly the moment that it had become utterly clear that it
was necessary for government to be a primary mover in addressing the cumulative
dislocations caused by globalization and the fraying of the New Deal inspired
social safety net. At the top, the Democratic Party leadership has been promoting
and accelerating the very economic and regulatory policies that advance the
economic dislocations of our country. So the Democratic Leadership Council
distances itself from working class and African American voters because it
has distanced itself from the economic and social welfare issues
(jobs, health care, education, child care, and the like) that are most important to those constituencies. So it shouldn't be a surprise that so many of these very same workers either respond to right wing politics or abstain from elections. After all, as they are displaced from trade unions, the only class based organizations in their lives, and shunned by the party that purports to represent them, where else do you suppose that they will go.
By adopting some of the program of the environmental and women's movements and by orienting itself so exclusively toward the New Economy, the New Democrats have also helped widen the class divide in the traditional base of the Democratic Party. This helps to understand why the charge of the elitism of the Democratic Party gets traction in working class and socially conservative communities.
The thing that white progressives should try to assimilate is the stubbornness with which African American voters refuse to walk away from their authentic interests and the equal stubbornness with which the New Democrats refuse to elevate progressive African Americans to leadership positions.
At the base, the Democratic Party has been only a little better. We have a collection of interest based groups, some bigger and some smaller: Labor, Environmentalists, Health Care Advocates, Civil Libertarians, NAACP, etc., with only the most occasional common planning and the absence of common program.
The basic rule in life is that you can't fight something with nothing. And the Right had spent 40 years developing something and the Democrats had spent almost the same period running away both from their failures in Vietnam and their successes in Civil and human rights. So you can have this ridiculous 2000 Presidential election where Gore hands the election, politically and procedurally, to Bush.
And if that's not bad enough, we then get Osama bin Laden, 9/11, the war in Iraq and, with those, the Perfect Storm. Bush had a framework and a message. Kerry had confusion, absence of a clear alternative, a politically and programmatically divided campaign, lots of polling data and a staff that thinks politics to be a form of marketing. Were it not for the labor movement, African American organizing, and the 527s, can you imagine the results?
What I find optimistic and reassuring is how many Americans saw through the Bush malarkey in 2004 with precious little help from the leaders of the Democratic Party and figured out new ways to organize and mobilize themselves. I won't tell you where it comes from, but the quote is "The reaction against Reaction has begun".
There is no question that we're going to pay big time in the next four years and how we fight back is going to determine how much longer than that we're going to have to pay.
So what is required is a New Covenant for America and progressives should try to figure out what it takes to become Covenant Democrats (a label of my making - it already has been pointed out to me that the Covenant is a right wing, racist, armed militia based in Idaho - but what the hell, if it sounds good, wear it.)
At the center of a New Covenant is a progressive economic and social program that can point the way through the current economic dislocations. Framing this covenant is the positive role of government in promoting appropriate economic development, providing an institutional framework that makes it realistic for people to be optimistic about their future and the future of their families, and reconstructing a social safety net.
I think that the development of such a program is the job of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And this requires coalition politics.
It also requires some new thinking about the South. I have no idea just how this can be accomplished or just what forms it can take, but the progressive movement has to figure out how to pay attention to the South. Conceding the South to the Republicans, not even struggling to make it contested terrain would continue to guarantee the Republicans a secure stronghold of more than 100 electoral votes.
Parenthetically, I think that language and framing are very important in this process. I also think that there has to be a program and vision about which language and framing are being developed.
We need a national re-groupment of the organizations and movements that came together around the Democratic campaign and at least the beginnings of the development of common agenda. We need local organizing and conscious efforts at the development of local coalitions, local agendas, and local victories. And there has to be a connection between the two.
There were some very smart things said at the Wellstone Club Meeting last Tuesday night. Among them were:
1. The need to be mindful that racial minorities, but particularly African Americans, are at the core of a progressive coalition.
2. The idea of a progressive coalition without the labor movement is self deceptive.
3. Principals in progressive movements have to be in constant contact with each other in order to learn each others agendas and concerns. Common agendas don't come without work and trust.
4. Progressive communities of trust have to transcend class, race and gender as well as spiritual orientation; engaging and working with differing viewpoints and perspectives is crucial.
5. A progressive movement in the Democratic Party has to operate at all levels, from the national to the local and vice versa.
6. Building a progressive movement in the Democratic Party is realistic, taking it over is not.
The coalition work of the Wellstone Club in this election has been good, but very elemental. We registered more than 7000 voters in predominantly minority and working class communities and made credible efforts to get them to the polls. We did make a significant contribution by very publicly have a registration campaign among people on probation and those off parole. Our poll watching efforts helped to demonstrate the inadequacy of the election process even in a progressive congressional district. Although we developed some relationships with labor and minority communities, it is only a beginning. Our relationships with the health care, housing, and environmental communities have not yet begun to take shape. Nor are we connected to issues surrounding education. These things will happen if club members take initiatives and if the club welcomes and supports these initiatives.
At the very moment that the Presidential elections are still raw in our feelings, the 2006 California election appears on our plate. There will be a powerful effort to extend the Shwarzenegger coup into a major Republican advance in advance in California. On the other side, we have the opportunity to be part of the process of advancing candidates and initiatives that will help to crystallize a progressive majority.
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